Abandoning Neutrality

If you’re an American, I’ve got a fun little Sunday activity for you…

The Federal Communications Commission is making new rules affecting something called ‘Net Neutrality’. Before we get to what that actually means, here’s the important part: The FCC’s deadline to receive public opinions about these new rules is September 15th and I think that you ought to take a few moments today to do some reading about the issue.

Once you get into the details, I suspect you’ll laugh out loud at the absurdity of the current situation (that’s where the “Fun Sunday Activity” part comes in). These rules will likely have a broad, long-lasting impact on American society so, no matter what conclusions you come to, I think you should consider adding your thoughts to the public record.

What is ‘Net Neutrality’?

I loved John Oliver’s explanation of Net Neutrality – and not just because it forced FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to make this categorical denial: “I would like to state for the record that I’m not a dingo.”1:

Here’s my definition:

Companies which provide Internet service shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with your data as it flows through to you.

These days, the Internet is probably the closest thing we have to a community commons or a level economic playing field. Net Neutrality is one of the core ideas which enables that online information economy. It’s what allows a variety of viewpoints to be equally available, and it’s the guarantee which lets a small start-up business compete with a giant corporation.

Imagine, though, what would happen to that small start-up if their website was temporarily blocked (or made slower than a competitor’s website) by an Internet provider. What if a well-funded rival could buy a pop-up ad which your customers would have to click through before they could even see what you’re selling? Or what it would be like for you to have a barely-usable connection to your favorite news website unless someone – maybe you, maybe the website – pays a little extra money for a “premium connection”.

Anyone who lives in the USA knows that these aren’t implausible scenarios at all… and this potential change is happening at a moment when television, print news, and traditional “Brick-and-Mortar” businesses are disappearing in favor of rapidly-expanding internet equivalents.

I mean – What could possibly go wrong with having a handful of Internet providers acting as gate-keepers to commerce and information, while the number of non-broadband alternatives shrinks week after week?

It’s Our Fault If This Happens.

We’ve already seen these coercive business practices take hold in other industries, haven’t we? Most Americans have some personal experience with mobile phone companies or the airlines, who appear to be racing one other to reach an ethical bottom – one which seems to have no lower limit – in order to maximize their profit and influence. 

Parody Ad of Multi-Tiered Internet Service

You weren’t entirely sure that this was a parody at first, right?

For years, we have passively accepted any number of annoying and anti-consumer practices from American companies: Locked phones, payday loans. Subscriptions which are easy to start and almost impossible to cancel. It’s become our new normal to tolerate a marketplace where the fees and charges of, say, an airline ticket or a mobile phone plan are so complicated that it’s incredibly difficult to predict what its final cost will be.

Companies have become adept at lowering consumer expectations and their PR playbook is well-established at this point. It even has its own vocabulary: Breaking a service into smaller pieces and charging you more for the total is called “unbundling” and is framed as “giving consumers a choice”. The regular service you had before something was unbundled? That’s now the “upgraded” service. From an Internet provider’s point of view, forcing people to pay an additional toll to get treated without discrimination isn’t really troll-like behavior. It’s just the “standard business practice” of our time.

And, sadly, it is. We grumble – but we haven’t found a meaningful way to push back against the companies that practice this coercive pricing. We keep buying plane tickets and mobile phones and, bit by bit, we move towards a world where people aren’t entirely sure what things cost and what they’re getting for their money.

What Should We Do?

No one (and I mean no one) can predict with certainty what the results of regulating the Internet will be. This should give us all pause.

But while there are valid arguments both for and against additional government regulations, I think this recent history has provided us with a very clear picture of how the market will actually work if left unrestrained. Protecting Net Neutrality is about something more important than money: It guarantees future access to the voices which will offer us all new ideas, innovative products, and alternative viewpoints.

Open, equal access to information is good for everyone. It nourishes the soil of scholarship, free enterprise, religious tolerance, and social justice alike. How many things do we have in our society which can claim that?

To provide an environment where every citizen – not just the wealthy – can safely follow a thought to wherever their curiosity and interest takes them is, I feel, the sine qua non of any civilization which wishes to call itself ‘free’. When you look at societies that never had open access to information – or where this freedom has been degraded – you generally see the slow, deadly creep of totalitarianism, fascism, corruption, and cronyism. I think those risks are real in any society and must be actively guarded against.

So, I am supporting the effort to reclassify Internet Service Providers as “common carriers” to ensure that every website on the Internet gets treated the same. At the same time, I’m asking that the FCC expressly commit NOT to apply any additional rules without similar public hearings.2

Whatever your viewpoint may be, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has developed a tool to streamline the comment submission process.

Use it. Put your thoughts on the record.

Where to Go From There.

I think we first have to win this battle to protect Net Neutrality. I use the word “battle” advisedly. We must all understand that, as soon as any rules get put in place, powerful forces immediately begin the slow, steady, well-funded process of dismantling that protection. This is something we’re going to have to be vigilant about protecting.

The work necessary to protect our core principles of tolerance and fair play for the future requires a deep shift in corporate culture. This means principles like Net Neutrality will continue to be in jeopardy until we can change how our business community looks at its civic responsibility.

We, as ordinary people, are as much to blame for the current state of affairs as “the dingos” of the world. We’ve all created a society where how much money a thing makes – or how much you can make somebody to pay to have it – is the ultimate measure of its value.

It seems to me like changing that kind of thinking is going to take some time. While we’re waiting, I’ll be sitting over here and trying to do a better job of this myself.

  1. Yup. Check it out… []
  2. This is a concept called forbearance and, by declaring a narrow scope for this new classification from the start, the FCC would have to invite public comment if it wanted to add any additional regulations. []